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Beauty’s Inclusivity Movement Has Sparked a Shade-Matching Arms Race

Brands are scrambling to develop a diverse range of foundation pigments so they can tout their inclusivity, but there's a new problem: how do these labels ensure their customers find the right shade?
Il Makiage's Woke Up Like This foundation | Source: Courtesy
  • Rachel Strugatz

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NEW YORK, United States — "What kind of finish am I looking for?" my editor asked me while taking Il Makiage's new Powermatch quiz, which feeds into a proprietary algorithm to allegedly determine one's ideal shade of foundation out of 50 possible options, all with over 90 percent accuracy. "Matte? Natural? Luminous?" (Note: my editor is male and has never worn makeup in his life.)

A moment later he summoned me again and rolled up his sleeve. “Are my veins more blue or green?” Apparently, the colour of your veins is a key factor in determining one’s undertone. People with pink or cool undertones likely have veins that are a “blueish, purple” colour, and people with yellow or warm undertones often have veins with a “greenish hue.” The former cohort is prone to sunburn and looks better in silver jewellery, and the latter tans easily and finds gold jewellery more flattering.

The matter of shade ranges is the most important conversation in beauty right now; it's one of the first topics to come up when I meet with founders, executives, publicists, retailers, investors, bankers, influencers, my mom and basically anyone else who wears or is interested in makeup. For decades beauty companies ignored darker skin tones, and today brands like Morphe, which unveiled 60 shades in January, and Fenty Beauty, which has 50 shades, are righting the industry's colossal wrongs. In a widespread shift, beauty brands are now racing to create extensive foundation ranges so they, too, can tout their inclusivity. Newcomer Uoma, Ulta Beauty's answer to Fenty, debuts exclusively in the US next month with an ambitious 51 shades. This, coupled with founder Sharon Chuter's directness about the industry's lack of diversity — it was clear when we met last week that the former Benefit Cosmetics executive isn't scared to talk about how that experience shaped her current venture — is sure to spark even more conversation.

Uoma’s “Say What?!” foundation | Source: Courtesy Uoma’s “Say What?!” foundation | Source: Courtesy

Uoma’s “Say What?!” foundation | Source: Courtesy


But with this progress, awareness and increasing abundance of shades, there’s a new problem: how do brands ensure their customers find the right shade? Determining if you’re “light,” “medium,” “tan,” “deep” and so on is easy. It’s the undertone that often trips people up. A brand can offer six shades in the “medium” category, but a “golden” medium is not a “cool” medium. This is a serious issue: one wrong guess can turn a customer off a brand for life, sending them elsewhere for their complexion needs. And if a brand loses enough customers, this could hurt business.
Brands, retailers and tech start-ups are trying to address this complexion conundrum. Il Makiage’s website uses artificial intelligence fueled by millions of data points to recommend shades, and Sephora has its Visual Artist augmented reality tool, which allows users to “try on” thousands of products virtually. In Sephora stores, shoppers can scan their skin to get a “colour iQ number” that spits out “scientifically precise recommendations.” BareMinerals has a Made-2-Fit app that uses MatchCo’s technology to scan a customer’s face so it can blend a custom formula. Ulta Beauty, which has a basic foundation finder tool on its website, is exploring artificial intelligence opportunities for the future, said Monica Arnaudo, Ulta’s senior vice president of merchandising.
Despite the growing number of digital tools available in-store or online, the preferred method of selecting foundation remains the traditional salesperson consultation, which involves lots of swatches and the client walking out with a different shade of foundation on each half of their face. Arnaudo believes in the power of going to a store, which she called the best way to get “extremely accurate” matches.
“There’s nothing like standing at the gondola … and looking at the shades with an associate, whether assisted or not assisted,” Arnaudo said. “That’s always the best approach.”
Oran Holtzman, owner and chief executive of Il Makiage, disagrees. He prefers technology to an in-person approach, so much so that the brand’s US pop-ups will have iPads armed with the Powermatch quiz. Holtzman said makeup artists, no matter how talented, are subjective, and artificial intelligence — which gets more sophisticated the more people use it — is not.
Case in point: I was shade matched in Huda Beauty’s #Fauxfilter foundation by two people — founder Huda Kattan herself and a Sephora salesperson — and their “matches” varied by three shades, one slightly darker and the other a little too light. Il Makiage’s Woke Up Like This foundation in shade 70, which was selected for me purely by technology, was a perfect match.
I also had the editorial team in BoF’s New York office take the brand’s quiz. Il Makiage sent my colleagues samples in their Powermatch shade, and I applied these foundations on three of them, including my editor. They were all matches.
A Morphe gondola at an Ulta Beauty store | Source: Courtesy A Morphe gondola at an Ulta Beauty store | Source: Courtesy

A Morphe gondola at an Ulta Beauty store | Source: Courtesy

Holtzman has two goals with Powermatch: he wants the technology to match customers with their true shade, and he also wants to change complexion from a replenishment category to a first-time purchase online. The latter is integral to the brand’s business, which is currently direct-to-consumer and online-only in the US, with a handful of pop-ups. In Israel, where Holtzman relaunched the 47-year-old brand with his sister Shiran Holtzman Erel in 2013, there’s a retail network of 40 stores. In 2017, private equity firm L Catterton pumped $34 million into Il Makiage’s colour cosmetics range, which helped the team double down on technology, the primary driver of the brand’s US business.

"People are trying to make it easier to find your shade, but it's still tough no matter what. The nuances are pretty undetectable in many shades when you buy online," said Jill Scalamandre, president of BareMinerals, Buxom and Global Development at Shiseido Makeup. Shiseido, parent company of BareMinerals, acquired custom-blend foundation service MatchCo in 2017, and BareMinerals is the first brand to use the technology.

Instead of going the way of Morphe, with its massive foundation range, BareMinerals will stick to about 35 shades and offer Made-2-Fit formulas for a consumer who can’t find a match in the pre-blended options.
“We have an algorithm that has a range of 65,000 shades. We can find your shade,” said Scalamandre. Who could argue with that?


Glossier is now a billion-dollar company. The brand just raised a $100 million Series D and is valued at $1.2 billion.

Olivia Jade's days as a beauty influencer might be numbered. Sephora and The Estée Lauder Companies have cut ties with Lori Loughlin's 19-year-old daughter following Loughlin's alleged participation in the college admissions scandal that was made public last week.

Target is getting clean. Next month, customers can look for a "Target Clean" icon on certain household, beauty, personal care and baby products formulated without parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde and other chemicals.

Skyn Iceland looks to expand. Hot off a $3 million investment, the brand is targeting younger customers and global markets in an effort to meet ambitious growth targets this year.

Kylie Jenner fuels growth at Ulta. The youngest self-made billionaire turned to Ulta as the first brick-and-mortar retailer to sell her Kylie Cosmetics line last November, which could have contributed to the retailer's better-than-expected fourth-quarter earnings.


Amazon launches first private label beauty brand. The retailer worked with Latvian models on its first private label skincare brand, Fast Beauty Co, which includes makeup removing wipes and face, lip and eye masks that retail for around $5 each.

Now anyone can be ambidextrous, thanks to Olive & June. Sarah Gibson Tuttle, founder of hip, LA-based nail salon Olive & June, created a patent-pending tool that lets people "steady a nondominant hand" while doing an at-home manicure.

Function of Beauty will remain loyal to its DTC business model. The personalised haircare business, which sold its one millionth product last November, has no plans to partner with retailers as it focuses on global expansion.

The Business of Beauty wants to hear from you. Send tips, suggestions, complaints and compliments to our beauty correspondent, Rachel Strugatz (

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